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Q. Bribery of Government Officials
Because it is illegal, bribery of government officials receives practically no mention in economic works. Economic science, however, should analyze all aspects of mutual exchange, whether these exchanges are legal or illegal. We have seen above that “bribery” of a private firm is not actually bribery at all, but simply payment of the market price for the product. Bribery of government officials is also a price for the payment of a service. What is this service? It is the failure to enforce the government edict as it applies to the particular person paying the bribe. In short, the acceptance of a bribe is equivalent to the sale of permission to engage in a certain line of business. Acceptance of a bribe is therefore praxeologically identical with the sale of a government license to engage in a business or occupation. And the economic effects are similar to those of a license. There is no economic difference between the purchase of a government permission to operate by buying a license or by paying government officials informally. What the briber receives, therefore, is an informal, oral license to operate. The fact that different government officials receive the money in the two cases is irrelevant to our discussion.
The extent to which an informal license acts as a grant of monopolistic privilege depends on the conditions under which it is granted. In some instances, the official accepts a bribe by one person and in effect grants him a monopoly in a particular area or occupation; in other cases, the official may grant the informal license to anybody who is willing to pay the necessary price. The former is an example of a clear monopoly grant followed by a possible monopoly price; in the latter case, the bribe acts as a lump-sum tax penalizing poorer competitors who cannot pay. They are forced out of business by the bribe system. However, we must remember that bribery is a consequence of the outlawing of a certain line of production and, therefore, that it serves to mitigate some of the loss of utility imposed on consumers and producers by the government prohibition. Given the state of outlawry, bribery is the chief means for the market to reassert itself; bribery moves the economy closer to the free-market situation.75
In fact, we must distinguish between an invasive bribe and a defensive bribe. The defensive bribe is what we have been discussing; that is, the purchase of a permission to operate after an activity is outlawed. On the other hand, a bribe to attain an exclusive or quasi-exclusive permission, barring others from the field, is an example of an invasive bribe, a payment for a grant of monopolistic privilege. The former is a significant movement toward the free market; the latter is a movement away from it.
- 75. The same is true of an official license: a firm's payment for a license is the only means for it to exist. A licensed firm cannot be stamped as a willing party to the monopolistic privilege unless it had helped to lobby for the licensing law's establishment or continuance, as very often happens.